Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mrs. Soffel

An interesting movie from the early 1980s that I didn't know much about until the last time it showed up on TCM is Mrs. Soffel. It's getting another airing today at 5:45 PM, and is certainly worth a viewing.

The titular Mrs. Kate Soffel is played by Diane Keaton. She's the wife in an upper-middle-class family in turn of the last century Pittsburgh, which is where her husband Peter (Edward Herrmann) is the warden of the penitentiary. Life for the Kate Soffels of the world circa 1900 was fairly constricting, as married women weren't expected to go out into the working world. At least, not the portion of the working world that involves making money; as I understand it upper-class wives had a lot to do with the charity sector. Mrs. Soffel's fulfilling work, such as it is, is to go go into the prison where her husband is warden and read the bible to the condemnded prisoners on the belief that faith in Jesus will set them free spiritually, if not on this world.

It's here that she meets the Biddle brothers, Ed (Mel Gibson) and Jack (Matthew Modine). The Biddles are unlike anyhting Kate has ever seen before, which makes me wonder how long Kate was doing her prison ministry. Ed is one of those charismatic evil types, and he doesn't believe in God; at least, certainly not God as envisioned by the Mrs. Soffels of the world. I mean, what sort of God would create a world like the one that led to the Biddles winding up on death row? They, of course, profess their innocence, and to be fair, the movie never really gets into whether the two are guilty of the crime for which they're in prison. Ed, meanwhile, takes a liking to Mrs. Soffel's physical presence, which is also understandable since it would have been a while since he had conjugal relations.

Eventually, Mrs. Soffel snaps. Ed suggests a plan for him and Jack to escape, but it's one that's going to require her help by smuggling in a hacksaw blade. Amazingly, she eventually agrees, and brings a blad into prison under all those pantaloons that made up women's outfits back in those days. All that restrictive clothing is apparently good for something. Ed and Jack eventually carry out their escape plan over the Christmas holidays, while Mr. Soffel is at the prison and the Soffel kids are away visiting relatives. They get out of prison and stop by the Soffel house on the prison grounds, where Ed asks Mrs. Soffel (who's home alone) to come with her....

Mrs. Soffel is an interesting story that's based on real events. As I mentioned years ago back when I discussed Girl With a Pearl Earring, one of the good things that came with the demise of the studio system was that period movies look much better, no longer being bound to the studio back lots. That's certainly true here, with a vintage prison building being used, as well as location shooting in Wisconsin and Ontario for the escape scenes. I have a feeling that Gibson and Modine are much too glamorous-looking to be prisoners from around 1900. I did volunteer work in a prison back when I was in college, and those prisoners looked nothing like Hollywood's portrayal of prisoners. But that's a minor flaw in an otherwise fairly good film.

Mrs. Soffel is, I think, out-of-print on DVD. It's another of those films where you can find it on Amazon, but not at the TCM shop.

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